Where I Write: Writing in longhand makes writing mobile
I always write my first draft longhand, pencil on paper in a lined notebook. The genesis of a story flows more freely when I'm not scrolling backwards and forwards making corrections on a computer. This means I can write anywhere, and often do. I've written on trains, in hotels, on planes, and particularly on ships and boats, which I've lived on and off for the last ten years.
Although my debut novel, Show Me the Sky, a globe-trotting coming-of-age tale set in Australia, Fiji, Kenya and England, was written after I'd returned to the UK, it was still written while I was on the move – I wrote most of the first draft on the Underground commuting daily from Kingston Upon Thames to Bayswater where I taught English to refugees. As I started work in the afternoon the train would nearly be empty, and a peaceful carriage with a defined time to write was a productive venue.
I seek out the scenes of the book and allow the external dramas become part of the internal life of the author.
However well the freehand story flowed, it would still need to be typed up. For this part of the creative process I needed quiet, a solid desk. Living in London isn't always easy to find a Zen space, so when I saw a boat for rent on the Thames near Kingston, a converted 'Higgin's Boat' – one of the landing craft used in the D-Day operation in 1944 – it seemed the perfect study. I had a desk looking out onto swans and ducks, which gently wobbled in the wake of passing barges. I'd work on the rough draft on the train in the afternoon, and then type the pencil into pixel the following mornings while floating on the river. No surprise that my favourite strand of that story is an 1830s sea journey to Fiji.
For my second novel, The Hummingbird and the Bear, I moved to New York with the intention of constructing a matching timeline to play out in the novel. Researching a place becomes part of the story. Events that occur while travelling can insert themselves into the narrative, and in the autumn of 2008 the banking crisis was just beginning, and Barack Obama would become President of the USA – scenes that became integral to the tale. Writing in a coffee shop or a bar, and listening in on worried bankers or excited voters, the real life pressed onto the fictional.
With this same 'working model' of writing a novel, whereby I seek out the scenes of the book and allow the external dramas become part of the internal life of the author, I returned to Japan in 2010 to research Tokyo.
I first moved to Japan in 1999 for a job as an English teacher, and the adventures that I had while hitch-hiking around the four islands would become rich material for the novel. But it had been years since I'd lived in the country, and I realised I needed to return there to write, particularly if I was to recreate the unique atmosphere of the metropolis capital.
People I met inspired characters and storylines, enriching the creative process
Like my other journeys to research and work, where I get to know not only a place, i.e. how to describe a nation's countryside, weather, food and cityscapes, the encounters I had while writing became part of the novel. People I met inspired characters and storylines, enriching the creative process. Whether fast-talking barmen, sullen Mafia juniors, or lost and estranged hostesses, the book became imbued with their very real spirit.
Physically, much of the actual writing of Tokyo was done in many of the city's coffee shops – an Italian themed cafe in the Mori Tower with views over Roppongi, or in one of the many American chain coffee stores in prime venues where a writer lifting his head from the page could find a distraction that might actually become a motivation.
Once Tokyo the draft was complete, it was time to return to London. Again I sought out a place on the river, this time an old Dutch barge near Tower Bridge with spectacular views of the Shard and Canary Wharf. Although the tidal Thames can get rough and choppy, the deck in the summer is a fine refuge from the capital commotion for editing and honing a final manuscript. The tabletop could do with some tender loving care after the winter weather, and perhaps I should sand and varnish the surface, an absolute clearing of my desk before setting down to write my fourth novel – set on a ship.